Headphone & Personal Audio at AXPONA 2013

Audeze with steam

There was a solid representation of both headphone and personal audio options sprinkled in among the loudspeaker rooms at AXPONA 2013.  An entire section located on the Mezzanine level of the Chicago DoubleTree was dedicated to the fine art of headphone listening.  While even some major manufactures are coming out with new entries (like the [Onkyo ES FC300] and [Denon’s revamped headphone line]) headphones companies like Audeze and HifiMan made their why through the rain to join us in the celebration of all things sound.

Audeze had their popular LCD planar headphone line on display.  Even though the closed-back prototype we saw at [RMAF 2012] was subtly absent, the company was hosting simultaneous appearances with their party at SXSW.  I had a chance to talk to Audeze’s COO and designer Sankar about the project and I’m expecting big things from the guys who have recently taken the audiophile headphone market by storm. The very cool LCD steampunk art piece was also present and accounted for. The LCD-3 ($2k) they had on display was driven by a E.A.R. HP4 headphone amplifier ($5,700) and had a CEntrance DACMini PX ($1k) as a source.

Alpha Design Labs H118 Headphone

Alpha Design Labs brought along the yet unreleased X1 portable USB DAC and headphone amplifier.  This 24/192 asynchronous DAC is capable of translating the digital signal from an iDevice from either the traditional 30 pin or the new Lighting connection.  The DAC can also act as a USB to S/PDIF converter via the line out which doubles as a TOSLINK optical output.  ADL had the X1 paired with the new H118 closed-back headphone that should be released into the wild in the next few months.

Alpha Design Labs portable X1 DAC and headphone amplifier

HifiMan is a company that reaches far across the headphone product landscape.  Known to produce not only top-notch headphones (in both planar and dynamic driver varieties) but also a healthy dose of headphone amplifiers and portable digital audio players.  The notorious HE-6 ($1,300) was on display connected to the beefy EF6 ($1,600) headphone amplifier.

HifiMan HE6 EF6

The real star of the HiFiMan show however, was the prototype HM-901 DAP ($1k).  This portable digital player is due out in a few months and showcases an extremely impressive level of flexibility.  It can be used in a traditional iPod role or as a DAC, USB to S/PDIF converter or a standalone headphone amplifier. The real treat for headphone enthusiasts is even further down the rabbit hole.  The HM-901 will feature removable headphone amplifier cards that can be replaced with amps specifically engineered for your headphone tastes.  Customized cards for efficient IEMs as well as planer magnetic headphones are already in the works. Both balanced and unbalanced headphone output will be possible through the regular small headphone jack.

Most of the attention for Focal at audio shows is on their big pricy loudspeakers.  The current Focal Spirit One headphone ($280) was spotted on the Mezzanine area paired with the MicroMega 24/192 MyDAC ($400) and the MyZic headphone amp($300). A new audiophile Focal headphone is due out that will (according to the sales rep) have a more audiophile sound signature to it.  The headphone will be named the Sprit Classic and retail for $350 and it should be available to purchase in a few months.

MicroMega MyDAC

Sennheiser had its current lineup of audiophile headphones on display, including the current darling of the head-fi world (it’s usually a very short-lived tenure), the Momentum ($350).

Sennheiser Momentum at AXPONA

Chicago local CEntrance had the long-awaited Hifi-M8 headphone amplifier & DAC combination prototype up and running for auditions.  The M8 offers made-to-order faceplates to accommodate your headphone connection needs.  Fully balanced XLR, RSA balanced mini and 4 pin XLR were just a few of the options on display.

CEntrance HiFi-M8 at AXPONA

One of my favorite surprises of the show was the room of the British tube amp company Icon Audio.  They are currently launching their US distribution and offer a wide range of amplifiers starting at $1k.  They also offer a $1k SE Triode headphone tube amp called the HP MKII that shares some aesthetic resemblance to the popular Woo audio line.

Icon Audio Mono Blocks at AXPONA


Sennheiser Momentum on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00AYT62FO

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